If China Has a John Stossel, Be Afraid, Very Afraid

America's geography blesses it with abundant natural resources and a relatively small population. But China lacks such advantages.
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I'm sure almost every country has someone like John Stossel -- a self-righteous media personality who depicts the world in black and white, and whose appeal, to a section of the population, lies precisely in his oversimplified take on what are very complex matters. I'm usually able to keep such media at bay, but the title to Stossel's recent editorial, "Keeping Nature Exactly As Is... Forever" in Reason Magazine was too hard to pass up.

Let's start from the end of Stossel's piece:

"Most of us don't think civilization is evil, but we worry about what environmentalists say. We don't have the time to do complicated calculations about economic trade-offs. It's easier to just recycle something, buy a Prius and donate to the Environmental Defense Fund. Today, we put up with amazing intrusions in the name of environmentalism. A million petty regulations mandate surtaxes on gas, separation of garbage into multiple bins, special light bulbs, taxes on plastic bags and so on. Yet these things are of so little ecological consequence that the Earth will never notice. For this, we must surrender our freedom?"

And there it is: environmental protection versus freedom. That's about as black and white as it gets. Don't concern yourself with the facts that if everyone did separate their trash or use energy-saving bulbs, we could save billions of dollars not digging new landfills and not building new power plants. The U.S. government's Energy Star program saved Americans $16 billion in utility bills in 2007 alone. Not bad for a "petty regulation."

If Stossel were persuaded by facts, he might see the collective savings such individual actions have. I know he is all about saving money because that's why he's against so-called "green schemes":

"The green schemes make energy cost more. Of course, some who push 'green jobs' want the price of energy to rise. Then we will live in smaller homes, drive less and burn fewer fossil fuels. But if the environmental lobby wants Americans to be poorer, it ought to come clean about that."

Gotta love his ability to boil it down for us, i.e., striving for conservation and efficiency means you're poor. Let's apply his logical reasoning to another issue near and dear to his heart, social welfare reform. According to Stossel, individual actions don't matter in light of the billions of tons of carbon and waste that must be dealt with to solve the problem. So why should any American care if one of their fellow citizens doesn't have a job and relies on welfare? They're just one person getting a few thousand dollars in taxpayer money. How is eliminating their welfare check going to solve America's $15 trillion debt problem?

Stossel gets at least one thing right. Green energy and green jobs do not come cheap. Indeed, achieving a truly sustainable economy would require fundamental changes to the dominant notion of free-market capitalism for both those on the left and the right. But what Stossel fails to appreciate is that the cost of ignoring our responsibilities to future generations could very likely result in a less prosperous and more dangerous world. Indeed, he fails to understand that economic actions have externalities, and that the "tragedy of the commons" even exists.

Perhaps it is Stossel's American-centric view that permits his misunderstanding. America's geography blesses it with abundant natural resources and a relatively small population. But China lacks such advantages.

China's ecological limitations -- water shortages, severely polluted water, soil pollution and the collapse of costal fisheries to name a few -- don't allow it the luxury of entertaining rhetoric like Stossel's. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese die annually from deaths related to their nation's water crisis. Air pollution in its cities, from coal plants and individually driven cars, make American visitors cringe when they first arrive. Many of these Americans forget that without regulation in the U.S., their cities would look the same. Laudably, China has recently raised the price of gasoline and electricity to levels that are, on average, higher than those in the U.S. and began to ban incandescent light bulbs. Did the country that raised more people out of poverty than any other in history do this to make its people poor again? Probably not. Rather, it was because its growing demand for fossil fuels is making all fuels more expensive, and hopefully to encourage efficiency.

If Stossel thinks that environmentalists are making U.S. energy prices rise, his understanding of markets and world events is skewed beyond belief. I invite him to come to China, so that he might understand why global energy prices are rising. China will struggle with leaving a dirty economic model behind because it is always easier to preference short-term economic growth over investments in value creating conservation for the future. But at least China realizes there are real physical constraints to its landfills and to its fossil fueled growth. If it doesn't realize this, then American environmentalists should be the least of Stossel's concerns.

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